In my previous hub, What the Pharisees thought of John the Baptist, you met my imaginary Pharisee, Simeon. I used him to show how the Pharisees became the legalistic religious leaders they were. Hopefully it helped you understand that they were very adamant in preserving their religion and way of life. I believe this is why they were concerned with who John was and what he was doing. His popularity would have been a threat to them. He wasn’t one of them, and his words to them were less than kind. (Matthew 3: 7-10) On the surface, their question may seem innocent, but perhaps it had another purpose. Let’s take a closer look.
What does it say?
John 1:24- “Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
Ancient Jewish Baptism
What does it Mean?
Some scholars believe that baptism was a new practice to the Jews, and this was why John was questioned on it. However spiritual cleansing rituals had been a part of their practice since the building of the first Temple. The temple included a large bronze basin for the purpose of cleansing. This was used by the priests before they performed their spiritual duties. (Exodus 30:17-21) It was also customary to require converts into Judaism to be fully immersed in water as part of their conversion. Debates recorded between the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai show that this custom was practiced as early as the 1st century BC. Jewish law even dictated rules for convert baptism. The debates and the law, along with Old Testament requirements for spiritual cleansing all indicate that this was not a new idea for the Pharisees.
Knowing that baptisms were common, we can determine that it was John’s authority rather than his practice that was under scrutiny. The Pharisees implied that only Christ, Elijah or the Prophet had the authority to perform this ceremony. This was not true, priests could be the qualified witnesses required by the law. John had the lineage to be a priest. It is possible that he would have even been the High Priest, had that office not been so politically corrupted under Roman rule. (Luke 1) This would have given him the right to baptize. Although the Pharisees may not have known who John’s ancestors were and what rights he was entitled to as a priest, I think it is more likely that they were trying to undermine his power before the crowds of people that he was so popular with.
If the Pharisees were worried about John, can you imagine how his next statement would have impacted them! “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know, He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” John was an opponent they knew, and he was causing enough trouble, now they had an unknown person to worry about. Someone that John claimed was going to be greater than himself was there among them. Do you think they wondered if it was the Messiah? Or did they just assume it was another troublemaker to be dealt with?
What does this mean to me?
John knew exactly who he was and who he wasn’t. He understood what God wanted him to do. This gave him the courage to stand up to the Pharisees. He wasn’t threatened by them. He embraced his role with courage and boldness. John did not try to be greater than God called him to be. He knew that although he played an important role in history, he was nothing next to Jesus. This makes me think about the role God has given me to play out in my life. Do I know what God wants from me? Do I run from that role, or embrace it in obedience? Do I humbly accept who I am, recognizing that I am nothing before Jesus? Or do I claim the glory that belongs to God when I look at my accomplishments and think to myself, “Look at what “I” can do!”? These are the lessons that I see in the person and character of John. Ask God to show you what he wants you to learn from the life of John the Baptist.
Thank you for reading! Please consider reading my account of a young boy's view of Jesus' baptism.